Thursday, January 11, 2007

It was Yvonne's new song...

From Everything was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, by Ted Chapin, 2003

Steve Sondheim, who hadn't been seen in several days, showed up, manuscript in hand. It was Yvonne's [De Carlo] new song, finished. There had been very little gossip around the company about the song, so I didn't know what to expect, but at least it was finished and Hal [Prince] was pleased about that. Steve handed me his manuscript, warning that it was the only copy. Knowing that the stage managers would be anxious for the lyrics typed out, I climbed to the fifth-floor dressing room/office, where the red IBM typewriter awaited By this time I had a pretty good idea of how Steve liked his lyrics transferred to script format, so I was confident I could extract them from his musical manuscript with few mistakes. I rolled the nine carbon sheets into the typewriter, and began:

I'M HERE

Carlotta

Good times and bum times,
I've seen them all and, my dear,
I'm still here.
Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I'm here.

The lyrics were precise and well crafted, so it was easy to figure out where the line breaks were. And they were evocative, with wonderful images from American history – breadlines, Beebe's Bathysphere, the WPA, Greer Garson, Amos and Andy. Herbert Hoover and J. Edgar Hoover were lyrically linked, probably for the first time ever. There was 3even a line cribbed from dialogue, in the fine tradition of the musical theatre. Carlotta once had a line: "Used to be I played the vamp. Now I play somebody's hot-pantsed mother, stinko by my swimming pool and all my kids are acid heads." That had become:

Been called a pinko
Commie tool,
Got through it stinko
By my pool.
I should have gone to an acting school,
That seems clear.
Still, someone said, "She's sincere,"
So I'm here.

I was astounded. The song just kept delivering brilliant images, of events and people from the 1930s and forties, all woven into a passionate and dramatic statement of survival. Wow, I thought, and this from a fairly simple-minded character who had previously sung a clever song with one big double-entendre joke and some tossed-off quips about being a has-been. Now we're learning who she was, and it was really good. There were a couple of references I didn't get – Brenda Frazier, Wally and George (later changed to Windsor and Wally) – but I did know about mahjongg, since my grandmother had taught me and my brothers the game that went with those beautiful ivory cubes. Certainly, though, I had never seen it used in a lyric before. Line after line continued to amaze me:

I've gotten through "Hey, you remind me of whoozis.
Wow, what a beauty you were."
Or, better yet, "Sorry, I thought you were whoozis.
Whatever happened to her?"

After these lines came a key change. Just typing these words, without hearing the music, it seemed as if the song had reached a different plateau and that a key change would probably be effective. Lyric after lyric was clever, perceptive, harsh, sad, piercing, funny, and honest. And perfectly crafted. In some ways the song seemed to be as much about Yvonne De Carlo herself as it was about Carlotta Campion, and I wondered whether Steve figured that Yvonne would probably not make the connection, which would add a layer of pathos to the performance that couldn't have been planned. He had been observing here, I thought, and he must have taken in a lot of who Yvonne was to create a piece of material that would give such depth to her character in so emotional a way. (Steve later claimed that Joan Crawford, not Yvonne, was his inspiration.) When I was told that Yvonne's audition song had been "Ten Cents a Dance," I wondered if there wasn't a reference to that in the lines:

Danced in my scanties.
Three bucks a night was the pay,
But I'm here.

The song would exist very much in the present – a personal statement by a character who had exhausted her repartee for the evening and was now revealing the truth about herself. Steve was replacing a comic turn with a from-the-heart statement. "Fox Trot" was a throw-away expanded beyond its resources. Now it was gone, and it was just possible that in the process Follies was going to gain a powerful moment that would strengthen its emotional center. I couldn't wait to hear the music that went with these words, especially as I got to the last page:

I got through all of last year,
And I'm here.
Lord knows, at least I was there,
And I'm here!
Look who's here!
I'm still here!

Keeping a clean copy for my files, I brought the copies and the manuscript down to Steve. The next step was for Mathilde [Pincus] to create a piano/vocal copy. Then the song could be circulated. This one was definitely a keeper. Little did I or any of know then that it would become one of Sondheim's most performed songs, and one whose sentiments, first typed that day by a twenty-year-old gofer, would continue to have resonance for years to come.

*****

When the news broke that Yvonne passed away yesterday, of course I thought of Lily Munster. But my mind soon wandered to Follies. How could it not? Sure, I'm Still Here is one of Sondheim's most performed songs, but he wrote it for Yvonne. My friend Bob and I were thinking practically the same thing today. Go to his Little Voice to see Yvonne deliver I'm Still Here.

3 comments:

Bob said...

I'm so glad that you captured that passage in Capin's book. One of my favorites!

Isn't it rich...? said...

"Everything Was Possible" was my Christmas present to myself... loved seeing Little Voice's tribute to Yvonne as well. Great minds you two.

HughE2030 said...

Excellent entry, there's always something to learn from your blog. Thanks!!